Family Farmers and Chinook Recovery
"Where Are The Kings?"
That's the critical question this video from Save Family Farmers asks. All species of Pacific salmon are at record high numbers, except chinook which continue to decline. Billions have been spent on improved habitat, but still the numbers go down. Harvest levels, when they are controlled by the state, have been seriously reduced. But still the numbers decline. Chinook production has nearly doubled in the past 40 years including both hatchery and wild chinook. But still the decline continues.
What's up? A science study published in October 2017 provides a compelling and clear answer.
This YouTube video shows a harbor seal eating a salmon at a dam near Olympia. The 77,800 harbor seals in the Salish Sea eat 86% of all salmon consumed by harbor seals from Alaska to California. This is a unique problem related to the fact that local killer whales, unlike most others, do not eat harbor seals. This preference for adult salmon combined with the huge numbers of chinook smolts consumed by harbor seals and other protected marine mammals is a threat to the survival of the killer whales and an explanation for why all the billions spent on salmon habitat have not resulted in increased returns of chinook salmon.
What do farmers have to do with fish?
Turns out, a lot!
Farmers stand as the last protectors of important fish habitat against the continuing pressure of urbanization. Paving over farmland eliminates critical environmental benefits that help fish. One of the most important is the maintaining the soil that filters rain water removing impurities and contamination. Urban stormwater is the most critical factor affecting water quality and it is interesting that one solution to this serious problem is more buffers to filter rainwater. Just like farms already do!
Farmers do more than steward the land. Our family farmers have been at the forefront for years in restoring fish habitat. There are almost as many examples of specific action taken as there are farmers. Buffers and stream augmentation are just two of a great many examples.
Farmers are willing participants in the state and federal program called CREP (Conservation Resource Enhancement Program). With the support of farmers Washington state has seen over 800 miles of stream side riparian zone buffers installed, over 240 miles in Whatcom County alone. Millions of seedlings have been planted. These buffers enhance the streams by reducing temperature, filtering runoff, and providing shade.
As focus has turned to the level of water in streams needed to protect fish, farmers have responded. In one area of northwest Washington, farmers have converted their irrigation rights to take water from the stream to use groundwater instead, and when that wasn't enough to return flow to a fish-bearing stream at the peak of summer, they received approval to pump water from wells located some distance away into the stream. It worked as the amount of water downstream equalled the amount of cold water added upstream. It's one of many such projects being planned by farmers.
Farmers want to see a strong recovery of fish, particularly the all-important chinook.
Seattle Times Editorial Close – but misses the harbor seal mark
The May 25 editorial in the Seattle Times calls for strong support for Rep. Herrera-Beutler's bill. It's a great start but focuses on Columbia river sea lions and not the Salish Sea harbor seals that are affecting our northern Puget Sound fisheries. We call on our representatives to work quickly to address this issue and make sure you include provisions that will include the Salish Sea's unique problem with marine mammal predation.
Bertrand creek flows through farm country in northwest Washington state. Innovative farmers are using groundwater to improve stream flow at critical low flow times of the year to improve fish habitat.
Farmers and Fish Habitat
Farmers have done more than almost anyone to protect and enhance habitat. Their commitment is strong and accelerating, as seen in remarkable stories of stream augmentation, fish gates, buffers, riparian zones and much more.
Some say that farming is harmful to salmon and other fish. Some use habitat as a reason to impose more regulations and laws harmful to farmers. But most realize that keeping our farmers health is one of the most important things we can do to continue to protect and enhance the habitat needed for fish recovery.
Harbor seal population in the Salish Sea has exploded from 8600 in 1975 to 77,800 in 2015. They dine on smolts (young salmon) preventing sufficient chinook from growing to the size needed to keep resident killer whales well fed.
Protected mammals are devastating chinook in Salish Sea
Forty years ago there were 8600 harbor seals in the Salish Sea, today there are over 80,000. Sea lions? From 5900 to nearly 50,000. Why, because we are producing more chinook than ever. And, unlike other areas where salmon are found, the Salish Sea (San Juan pods) orcas do not eat seals and sea lions.
As a result, of all the salmon taken by the many thousands of pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), 85% of those are taken in the Salish Sea. They eat the smolts, young salmon, leaving fewer and fewer adult salmon for orcas, tribal and sport fishers to harvest.
Many are already working to adjust a 1972 law that inadvertently is a significant cause of declining fish returns in the Puget Sound and Salish Sea.
It will take an Act of Congress
The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act had the unintended consequence of severely harming chinook runs in the Salish Sea and threatening the future of our resident killer whales.
Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler from the Third District introduced HR 2083 aimed at allowing the removal of pinnipeds threatening Columbia river chinook. But we need Salish Sea protections. We are joining with others concerned about chinook returns and the future of our resident killer whales to amend existing bills or introduce a new bill aimed at allowing the removal of the appropriate number of harbor seals and sea lions to allow our chinook to recover and support our local pods of orcas.